Photo credit: Cathy Koczela
The human penchant for collecting things seems limitless. Porcelain dolls and hubcaps, cereal boxes and buttons — the variety of items accumulated by hobbyists strains the imagination. Indeed, my most precious collection does not fit any category on eBay, nor could it be displayed in any cabinet, for how can you stockpile something as ephemeral as the memory of a shadow?
I collect eclipses — total solar eclipses, to be exact. In the parlance of the sport, I am an umbraphile
, an eclipse chaser. More than an avocation, it is an obsession, one that began almost 20 years ago.
I witnessed my first total solar eclipse in 1998, in Aruba. I had gone to that Caribbean island specifically to experience the rare astronomical event, though I was unsure what to expect. I had previously seen several partial
solar eclipses and had found them intriguing; during a partial eclipse, the moon seems to carve a notch in the sun, transforming the solar disk into the shape of a cookie with a large bite in its edge. A total
solar eclipse, however, is fundamentally different. When the moon completely obscures the sun, you can stand in a magical and fleeting place — inside the lunar shadow.
February 26, 1998, found me on a tropical beach awaiting that shaft of darkness from outer space, and when it arrived, I felt myself transformed and transported. As the moon’s shadow descended, it seemed as if a curtain lifted, for the earth’s blue sky peeled back to expose an entirely new view of the heavens. Above me, the afternoon turned to purple-gray twilight. Bright stars and planets materialized, and amid them shone an incomprehensible object that looked like an enormous wreath woven from tinsel. This was the sun’s outer atmosphere — the corona
— and it was a marvel to behold. No simple halo around the sun, it appeared as a wispy appendage, as if made from strands of cotton pinched and twisted by invisible fingers. The view was hypnotic, transcendent, and frustratingly brief. The moon’s shadow lingered for a mere 174 seconds — less than 3 minutes — at which point daylight abruptly returned. I, however, remained permanently changed.
Total eclipses occur somewhere on earth about once every 18 months, and I now travel the world to place myself again and again in the path of the lunar shadow. I have found that each eclipse is special in its own way. The sun, the sky, the setting, and the people are never the same, and they combine to create a unique experience.
In 1999, I viewed a total eclipse from a hotel roof in Munich, and my greatest memory is the immense shout of joy — hundreds of thousands of voices in unison — that rose from the city as the shadow fell. In 2012, I stood on the coast of Australia where it rained during the partial phase of the eclipse, depressing the mood of the crowd, but then — five minutes before the onset of the total phase — a hole miraculously opened in the clouds as the shadow moved in, and when the darkness departed we were treated to a “diamond ring,” a gemlike point of sunlight set in a silver band around the blackened moon. In 2015, I ventured to the Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic, where the moon’s shadow entered the atmosphere at a shallow angle and painted the sky an odd mix of colors. A year later, in Indonesia, the shadow arrived at sunrise, and the eclipse itself was stunning — most notable was a solar prominence, like an enormous red flame leaping off the sun — but I was also struck by the reactions of the local villagers. They seemed more taken by the hordes of eccentric foreigners that had come to see the eclipse than by the celestial event itself.
Eclipse chasers, like birders, comprise a passionate and competitive lot. We compile life lists and track our individual statistics — not only the number of eclipses we have seen but also the accumulated time we have each spent in the shadow of the moon. In the course of five total eclipses, I have dwelled for 11 minutes and 2 seconds in that strange and transient place, a state astronomers call totality
A total eclipse is indeed an all-encompassing experience, something you don’t just see but rather feel with many senses. People routinely gasp, cry, and scream when the darkness falls. They perceive themselves plunging into some alternate reality. I often describe the experience as psychedelic. It can certainly be addictive.
Many thousands of Americans will soon join the ranks of eclipse addicts, for on August 21, 2017, the moon’s shadow will cross the nation from coast to coast for the first time in 99 years. The darkness of the total eclipse will fall along a 70-mile-wide strip of land from Newport, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina — a zone called the path of totality. Some 12 million people live within that path, and millions more will visit it to experience what is being billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For some observers, however, once in a lifetime will not be enough. For them, the eclipse will mark the start of a strange and fantastic collection.
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, a science writer and eclipse chaser, is author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World